The Derby Girl (Getting Physical #2)
Roller derby girl Gretchen “Honey Badger” Badgerton lives in the moment, no apologies. Like every woman in Pleasant Park with a pulse, she finds Dr. Jared Fine irresistible, but she’s taken by surprise when her unattainable new neighbor asks her out.
On paper, Jared is the perfect man: gorgeous, wealthy and charitable. But his golden image is just that, and opening an upstate practice is a welcome chance to start a new life. When Gretchen stops to help him with a flat tire, he’s intrigued by her feisty attitude—and her sexy body art. There’s something refreshing about being with a take-charge woman who doesn’t expect him to be anything but himself.
Though Gretchen is hesitant to shatter Jared’s “bad girl” illusion of her, she has to face facts: she’s fallen for the good doctor. She’s used to putting everyone else’s needs before hers, but as their relationship heats up, can she handle having someone take care of her for a change?
Gretchen’s right eye was so swollen she almost missed seeing it.
Bright red, so small it looked as though it could barely fit a whole human being, probably purchased to make up for a penis of microscopic proportions, the vintage Ferrari that had pulled over to the side of the road was no more than a blip in her peripheral vision. A flash of color. A warning sign.
Naturally, she lifted her foot off the gas and eased her own car—also red, but vintage only in the sense that it ought to have been earmarked for the junk heap—onto the shoulder. Slight though this blip might be, it was a blip she recognized.
Her car rattled to a wheezy stop, and she didn’t bother checking her image in the rearview mirror before getting out. Gretchen knew very well what she looked like right now. An encroaching purple bruise was in the process of forming on the shiny, swollen flesh around her eye. Blood crusted inside one of her nostrils, and her bottom lip was so fat she had what could accurately be termed bee-stung lips for the first time in her life.
It had been an awesome night.
“Need a hand?” she called out, picking her way along the edge of the highway, which was dark and deserted and the perfect setting for any one of a number of horror movies. Gretchen happened to adore horror movies, which was why she always came prepared. Her purse was a treasure trove of pepper spray and strategically placed rolls of quarters, none of which had ever seen any action.
That was what happened when you only stopped on the side of the road for cars you knew. Common sense made it unnecessary to battle the things that went bump in the night.
“Hello?” she called again. She could see the driver crouched near one of the rear tires. “Anything I can do to help?”
At this time of night, there was little traffic between Philadelphia and her hometown, the cozy borough of Pleasant Park. During rush hour, the routes were a constant stream of sensible commuter cars making the sixty-mile trek, but few people straggled home from their urban pursuits near ten o’clock on a weeknight, so it was unlikely anyone else would stop to lend a hand. And she knew for a fact that cell phone reception in this area sucked. Her car broke down here at least twice a month.
The man looked up from his pancaked tire, a frown etched onto his face. Despite him driving a ridiculous car, his face was one Gretchen knew well. Dreamed of often. Occasionally fantasized about licking.
But only occasionally. And always under the most sanitary of conditions.
Technically, she’d never exchanged more than a few words with him, though he stopped by the café where she worked part-time several days a week. He always ordered black tea kombucha and a whole wheat bagel to go, and although his conversation was generally restricted to a few grunts and fewer smiles, he had a good working relationship with the tip jar.
To be perfectly fair, Gretchen was half in love with every customer who had a good working relationship with the tip jar.
His face was heavy with lines, but in that attractive way of well-weathered men who had stories to tell for each one, and was topped with a dashing crop of dark hair touched at the edges with gray. It was hard not to admire a man with hair like that, especially in Pleasant Park, where a Dr. Fine sighting was almost as big of a deal as that time they’d passed an ordinance to paint all the fire hydrants a cerulean blue.
She wouldn’t exactly call herself Dr. Fine’s stalker—unlike several of the other women in town who exhibited no qualms about sharing their own face-licking fantasies—but she’d have been lying if she didn’t admit to having the tiniest crush on this man.
And once—only once, she swore—she might have sat in the window of the café for a full half hour, face pressed to the glass as he wooed a stray dog out from an alley with bites of his bagel. Thirty minutes of painstaking trust-building, and the grungy, rheumy-eyed mutt had eventually hopped onto the front seat of that Ferrari and sped away with him, its tongue flapping joyfully in the wind.
No woman could resist developing goo-goo eyes over a national hero who grumbled at human beings but went all soft over a dog. She wouldn’t even know how to begin trying.
“I’m fine,” he said, his voice curt.
“I’m aware of that.” She tried for a smile, but her bruised face protested with a vehemence that was only now beginning to make itself known. It always took a few hours for the adrenaline to wear away and the throbbing sensation to creep in. “But I have a jack and cookies and a car that’s a magnet for breaking down at the most inopportune times. I’ve changed more tires on this stretch than I care to admit.”
Dr. Fine stood, brushing his hands on his well-filled jeans and examining her for the first time. Gretchen could tell the exact moment her appearance sank in from the way his frown lines deepened all of two seconds later.
“What the hell happened to you?”
Gretchen was betrayed into a laugh, which cracked at her lip. “Gravity,” she managed, holding the back of her hand to her mouth to stop the bleeding. Oozing cuts didn’t have quite the same effect as lipstick, much as she might wish otherwise. How much better would her dating life be if men were attracted to bloodshed and poor life decisions?
She could tell Dr. Fine wanted to ask more questions, but he stood in a daze as she marched up to his tire to take a look. The daze could have been due to one of two things: the fact that she looked like she recently took a roller skate to the face, which she had, or that she hadn’t had time to change out of her practice gear. She was a hot mess of runny makeup, exhaustion and helmet hair, all bundled up in oversized sweatpants. Not her finest hour, by any means, but she had a world-renowned plastic surgeon to rescue here.
“This tire looks shredded—you must have hit a rock or something. I don’t suppose you have a spare in that miniature trunk of yours?”
Jared watched the strange, tiny, beat-up woman walk around to the back of his car and yank at the trunk, expectation settling in her hands-on-hips stance when it didn’t budge.
“It’s locked,” he said, knowing as the words escaped his lips that he had yet to say anything that didn’t make him sound perfectly barbaric. “There’s a spare, but I can do it myself. You said you have a jack?”
“I also said I have cookies,” she replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “Who makes the drive in this void of cell phone activity without the essentials?”
She sauntered to a car that looked one loose screw away from falling to pieces, and began rummaging in the back. Among the paraphernalia she tossed aside were a bowling ball, a shovel and a duffel bag that looked as though it could easily contain a dismembered body or two.
I hope the bastard who did that to her is in there.
After lingering a few seconds on that thought, Jared shook himself off and went to help her. He wasn’t normally so taken aback by a battered face—he’d seen more than his fair share of reconstructive surgeries—but this woman didn’t seem the least bit victimized by her current state. If anything, she was energized by it, a walking contradiction. Small in stature but efficiently competent. Bruised but laughing.
About to change a tire for a perfectly able-bodied man.
“I’ve got it.” His voice came out more authoritative than he intended. It did that most of the time, unless he was very careful to control the words he said and the way he said them. He would have liked to blame his tyrannical manner on years of being accustomed to giving out orders, but the truth was that he was a natural dictator. Give him a small country to run and a few thousand men with guns, and he was pretty sure he’d end up conquering the world.
“I appreciate your stopping, but I don’t need a woma—I don’t need you to do that for me,” he hastily amended.
Though, come to think of it, he didn’t appreciate her stopping. This tiny creature—she couldn’t be more than one or two inches over five feet, her build slight underneath the pooled sweats she wore—really shouldn’t be pulling over in the middle of the night. Especially when she looked like she’d just gone up against the worst kind of man in the world.
“Why don’t you wait in your car and I’ll finish this? I can toss the jack in when I’m done. It seems as though you could use the rest.”
She leaned on her car and studied him. Normally, that frank kind of appraisal made him stand a little taller, try to increase his stature—if only in theory. At five foot eight, he never commanded what could be called a towering presence. Tonight, he only slumped further, doing his best to appear small and harmless. It was the least he could do.
“I’m Jared, by the way,” he added. Kindly, he hoped.
“Hello, Jared,” she returned, slinging his name as if she’d been using it for years. “I’m Gretchen. And despite the fact that I am, as you almost let slip, a female, I’m perfectly capable of changing tires. Or, if that’s too difficult for you to wrap your head around, of standing on my own two feet while a big, strong man does the tire-changing himself.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Yes, it is.” She pushed a strand of scraggly inky-black hair out of her face and tucked it into a messy ball of hair that sat on top of her head. “But don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.”
He frowned. “There’s nothing to tell.”
Confusion forced him to pause. Was this woman goading him on purpose? In the dark, alone and on the side of the road? He tried one more time. “Are you sure you don’t want to wait in your car?”
“Why? Am I making you nervous?”
“A little,” he admitted. That earned him a trill of laughter.
“Go ahead and get on with your manly business. Let me know if you need any help. Or if you change your mind about the cookies.” She made no motion to get safely in her car, instead turning her gaze skyward, taking in the stars without so much as a single precaution against him or the night.
There wasn’t much to say or do after that but change the tire—not so much as a matter of pride as it was of not appearing like a threat. Years of willful self-sufficiency had roughened his edges, sharpening him against situations he couldn’t control. Add an oddly belligerent woman with a black eye into the mix, and it was damn near impossible for him to act like a normal human being.
He moved quickly and carefully, determined to prove he wasn’t quite as ham-fisted as the situation was making him out to be. It was the car’s fault, really. An acceptable—if somewhat impulsive—purchase as a young man in his twenties bent on impressing the world, the sports car now made him feel like a dirty old man in the throes of a midlife crisis. All he needed was a private yacht and a young girlfriend, and he’d be every cliché he despised.
He stole a quick glance at Gretchen as he twisted off the lug nuts. It was too dark to see much, but she was definitely young enough to fit the bill. Pretty, too. Despite the swelling all along the right side of her face, she had great cheekbones and bilateral symmetry.
What is wrong with me? He returned his attention to the tire. First thing he planned to do when he got back to town was put this worthless car on the market and find something more sensible to drive. After years of maneuvering rugged, off-terrain military-grade Jeeps, he felt like a leprechaun zipping through the streets in the damn thing anyway.
Fortunately, those same years of maneuvering rugged, off-terrain military-grade Jeeps meant that he knew his way around a flat tire. He couldn’t count the number of times they’d been stalled mid-transport only to find that a rock or a tree branch or, as was more often the case, a piece of shrapnel, had stalled their forward movement. When you had to change a tire on a dirt path that had seen its share of attacks on civilian medical convoys, you learned to do it quickly.
As soon as the spare was in place, he pumped the hand-crank to lower his car to the ground.
“Thanks.” He struggled to get the gratitude out as he returned the jack to its owner. Funny how appreciation always seemed to get lodged in his throat just when it was needed most. “And despite what I said before, I appreciate the rescue.”
She turned and nodded. “You’re welcome. Can I offer you a piece of advice?”
He stopped. He’d been just about to say the exact same thing to her. “Can I offer you some first?”
“By all means.” Then, wryly, she added, “Although I always thought ladies were supposed to go first. How appropriate that you’d be the exception to that rule.”
Ignoring the barb, he reached up and touched her temple on the swollen side, gently feeling the edges of her contusion. As if sensing he meant no harm, she let him. Maybe she felt his doctor’s touch, or maybe it was that this woman was way too trusting to be let out alone after the sun went down, but she didn’t move or even wince.
“You’re going to have a pretty bad bruise for the next couple of days, but it doesn’t look like anything is fractured.” He moved his fingers down her face, stopping gently at her lip. A protective surge moved through him, out of place and unfamiliar. “And I’d put some ointment on that to keep it from cracking more.”
Another mark—this one darker and twisting—extended its way up her neck, but for some reason, that seemed too intimate a place to pry.
“Anything else?” she asked, her tone light.
He dropped his hand. “Yes. Go straight to the police station and place charges. Take pictures. Don’t let him get away with it.”
She met his gaze directly, and he noticed for the first time that her eyes were light hazel, a kind of unearthly yellow that dazzled even in the middle of nowhere under a half-moon sky.
“I see. And do I strike you as the type of woman to let a man get away with anything?”
No. No, she doesn’t. But that didn’t lessen his overwhelming urge to demolish the asshole who’d dared to try.
“Does that mean I can’t go kick this guy’s ass for you?” he couldn’t help asking. “Because I can tell you right now—all you have to do is say the word and it’s done. With pleasure.”
She laughed. “That’s sweet, but you can go ahead and stop acting like you’ve just discovered your dick and won’t stop until the whole world has admired it with you.”
Did she just say what he thought she said?
Gretchen smiled again, wincing when she stretched too far and her lip started bleeding again. It didn’t slow her smile down one bit. Along with a growing tension in his chest, a strong sense of bewilderment stole over him.
“I was at roller derby practice.” She took pity on him, touching the side of her head with a soft smile. “This is what a rogue skate does when it finds a nice place to land. It looks worse than it feels, I promise.”
“A roller derby skate?”
She nodded. “Fast and four-wheeled. Heavy too.”
“You’re sure that’s all it was?” He studied her closely, looking for the typical signs of evasion—poor eye contact, an unconscious shifting of the body, arms crossed to keep outsiders at bay. Nothing. She didn’t move, barely even blinked.
“I promise. I’m okay.”
Why was disappointment his first response to that statement? He should have been relieved to hear that this woman was no victim, happy to know she had someplace safe to go when she got back into that junk heap of a car.
A prurient medical interest—that was where he’d assign blame. Not at all the recent discovery of his dick, as she suggested. He knew very well where the damn thing was and what kind of trouble it created.
“Come to think of it, you might need a stitch on that lip,” he said, lending credence to his thoughts. “I can help with that. Do you live around here?”
“It’s not that bad.” She paused, eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute—you have no idea who I am, do you?”
The bewilderment grew. It wasn’t often that Jared found himself at a loss for words. In fact, he was exceptionally good at saying what people wanted to hear. Yes, it’s lovely to see you again. Of course I remember what a great time we had at that party. I’m happy to be back in the United States, thanks for asking. But he came up empty as he racked his brain trying to place the woman. He would have remembered a militant roller-skating pixie. He was sure of it.
“Why am I not surprised?” She directed her question more to herself that time and sighed. “I sure know how to pick them. Well, since you’re obviously far too important to mingle with the rabble, can I give you that advice now?”
“Go out with me.” The words were past his lips before he even realized they’d entered his head.
She blinked, looking at him with a mixture of fascination and surprise. The combination lit her already flashing eyes, pulling him in and leaving him suddenly weightless. “What did you just say?”
“Go out with me,” he repeated, more firmly this time. Retreat, though wise, wasn’t an option. So far, he had yet to say one thing to this woman that impressed her. Or intimidated her. Or made her do anything but laugh at him.
Yet there she stood, unmistakably interested. Unmistakably intrigued.
The feelings, he was happy to note, were reciprocated.
“Please,” he said. “It’s the least you can do for making me feel like the biggest jackass in the world.”
“What’s that famous quote?” Gretchen paused, thinking, but he could tell from the look of mischief in her eyes that it was all for show. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent?”
“Are you implying that the reason I feel like a jackass is because I am one?”
“I’m just here to help you change a tire.”
“I am a jackass,” he continued, ignoring her, only half joking. “A big one. Self-absorbed, vain. The only feelings I care about are my own. I break women’s hearts and don’t bother sticking around to see what they do with the pieces.”
“They generally pick them up and move on with their lives,” she said dryly. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man insult himself with so much conceit lingering in the subtext. You have a gift.”
“I have several,” he acknowledged with a slight bow.
She let loose a burst of laughter. “I can’t wait to find out what the rest of them are.”
As she seemed deliciously close to agreeing to go out with him, he chose his next words carefully. “Just so you know, I don’t improve much on further acquaintance. In fact, I get much worse.”
Gretchen tilted her head, considering him. There was no use pretending she wasn’t flattered—giddy, even—despite this man’s obvious conceit and the fact that he didn’t recognize her as the barista who handed his breakfast out the to-go window most mornings. He was, after all, the Dr. Jared Fine, Pleasant Park’s newest hero.
Stocky and powerful with craggy lines in his weathered face and around his deep-set eyes, Jared was the kind of guy who branded himself on a woman’s imagination in the best—and worst—possible way. Not one of your pretty boys, this one, not even handsome in the classical sense of the word. He looked like a man returned from war, hard and intent and determined to force his way through any situation—including those involving women.
Her friend Caitlyn called him a panty disintegrator. One strong look, and satiny undergarments all but combusted on the spot, flung themselves at the nearest unsuspecting passerby.
Good thing Gretchen’s undergarments were made of sterner stuff. She had specialty no-ride hotpants—a staple of roller derby girls everywhere. Those suckers didn’t move without express permission from the owner first.
“Will you do it?” he asked, his eyes never leaving hers. Despite his almost clinical arrogance, she had the feeling her answer meant a lot more than it should have, given the circumstances.
“That depends…would you insist on picking me up in that horrible car?”
Jared looked over his Ferrari with a grimace. “I admit it might be a bit much.”
She held her fingers up in an approximation of an inch. “A very tiny much.”
He caught her meaning and fell into a startled laugh. Damn, but that was a laugh, low and rumbling, practically shaking the ground beneath her feet. There was something about taking a stern man by surprise that had a way of making a girl all unsteady on her legs.
“Don’t worry. It’s not my intention to pick you up at all.”
“How thoughtful. I might have figured.”
“I’ve never had any complaints about my technique before,” he said smoothly. “But you really need to start taking precautions—especially with strange men. For a first date, you should always drive yourself and offer to meet at the restaurant. And didn’t your parents ever teach you not to pull over to help random strangers when you’re alone?”
“I told you already. You’re not a stranger.”
His eyes flashed with something dark as her meaning became clear. “You must live in Pleasant Park.”
“Then you know who I am.”
There was that dark flash again. “Don’t believe everything you hear.”
“The good stuff or the bad stuff?” Gretchen might not have the most glamorous job in the world, but one thing about being situated in the middle of the downtown area and serving caffeine to the masses was that she experienced no shortage of borough gossip. When Jared and some of his friends had opened a medical spa a few months ago, the New Leaf facility was all anyone could talk about.
Gretchen had liked the place right from the start. The other plastic surgeon who worked there was this hilarious, high-volume woman, and Gretchen had even gone in a few times to talk to the giant, kindly massage therapist about getting her grandmother in for a Swedish massage.
“The good.” He turned sharply away. “Don’t believe any of the good stuff. The bad is all true.”
Well, shoot. There went the last of her resolve.
Agreeing to go out with this man was the horror-movie equivalent of splitting up to go investigate a scary noise, of running through the kitchen to escape and not taking one extra second to grab a butcher knife or nutcracker or big-ass wooden spoon or anything by way of protection.
Yet still she ran.
Hey—someone had to be the first to go, and her blood splattered red and gory just as well as the next gal’s. Gorier, even, she realized as she touched her lip. And he didn’t seem to mind in the least.
“The answer is yes. I’ll go out with you. I’ll meet you at a public place in the full light of day and with my rape whistle around my neck. Satisfied?”
He looked it. Within two seconds, the gloomy, moody man-child disappeared, replaced once again by the arrogant doctor she recognized, all smirking lips and uplifted brows. In that moment, she wasn’t sure which of the Jareds she was saying yes to—the man or the monster.
Who was she kidding? Both of them gave her insides a twist. And a little meltiness in the panty region.
She stuck out her hand, holding it aloft until he shook. His hand was surprisingly soft for his grizzled exterior, although that shouldn’t have surprised her. He probably spent most of his time swimming in latex and fat tissue. Still, she took a moment to revel in it, the strong grip and smooth skin, the wildly divergent extremes.
And then he ruined it, doing that condescending doctor thing where he placed his other hand in there and forced a double shake, as though he wanted to comfort her into handing over all her insurance information.
“Is it too late for you to give me that advice?” he asked.
She’d been planning on telling him to be nicer to the barista who drew little hearts and rainbows on his cup in the morning, but that didn’t seem appropriate now. If he couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to minimum-wage service workers on his own, she certainly wasn’t going to smooth the path for him now. Besides—he seemed like the type to appreciate the challenge. She changed tactics.
“I think I might make you earn it first.”
He accepted her decree with a nod of almost grateful understanding.
“How did you say I know you again?” he asked as they exchanged phone numbers and made plans for a highly public date—no dark roadsides allowed. It was almost cute, how wary he was of protecting her. All she had to do was swing her purse at him and the roll of quarters in there would have probably knocked him flat while she made a break for it.
And she was fast. As the team jammer, being light on her feet was a given.
“I’m going to be ashamed of myself when I finally figure it out, aren’t I?”
She nodded happily. “If you have any decency at all, yes, you are.”
He let out a long sigh, though a smile lurked at the corners of his mouth and robbed the sound of any melancholy. “Unfortunately, decency is one of the many things I have in short supply.”